Creating New Chemiluminescent
Karen Young Kreeger
Irena Y. Bronstein 67,
vice president of high-throughput screening applications
at Applied Biosystems/Tropix in Bedford, Mass.,
entered Bryn Mawr when she was just shy of 15,
far younger than her classmates. She was born
in Russia and went to secondary school in Poland,
where students finish high school at an earlier
age than in the United States.
"I was always interested
in the sciences and thought at one point that
I would be a physician, but chemistry was just
as fascinating to me," Bronstein recalls.
"I was interested in scientific processes
that are not reversible, as opposed to, say, physics
where they are presumably reversible." This
lifelong interest has taken her on quite a journey,
from innovative research at Polaroid to cutting-edge
Bronstein majored in chemistry
at Bryn Mawr, where she became interested in photochemistry
through her studies with Frank Mallory, W. Alton
Jones Professor of Chemistry. She pursued this
interest as a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins
University, where she earned a Ph.D. in molecular
photochemistry in 1972.
After Hopkins Bronstein went
on to a series of postdocs at the University of
Houston, Brandeis University and the University
of Maryland Medical Center. In 1976 she accepted
a research position at the Polaroid Corporation,
"It was an unbelievable
company that was doing high-level research at
the time," Bronstein recalls. In her nine
years at Polaroid, Bronstein wore many different
hats, including director of biotechnology, technical
manager for photochemistry research, senior research
group leader for the Land Laboratory and research
group leader for photochemistry and polymer chemistry
research. She and her colleagues developed the
chemical processes to produce archival-quality
Polaroid photos that wouldnt fade.
Polaroid eventually diversified
into microelectronics and biotechnology, and Bronstein
was appointed one of the heads of biotechnology.
This dovetailed with Bronsteins interest
in figuring out how to develop biomedical diagnostic
devices that didnt rely on using radioactive
materials. "Part of what I learned at Johns
Hopkins, but probably starting at Bryn Mawr, was
a process called chemiluminescence creating
light as a result of a chemical reaction,"
she explains. She tried to push that research
line at Polaroid, but it didnt go anywhere.
In 1984, Bronstein was recruited
by a new company, Allied Health and Scientific
Products, Andover, Mass. "At the time, Allied
was just a building, but it had a lot of money
to invest in its start-up operations. Allied was
extremely exciting to me because I really hoped
to get involved in diagnostics," she says.
Allied also shared Bronsteins
interest in developing diagnostic tools based
on chemiluminescence. Soon after she joined Allied,
however, it merged with another company that decided
not to go into health-related business. "From
the fall of 1985 on, it was just a matter of time
before our facility would be closed down,"
On a flight back from vacation
to attend an urgent meeting at Allied around the
time of the merger, a fellow passenger asked Bronstein
a question that changed her career track: "If
you have such good ideas, why dont you start
your own business?" So she did.
Her husband, Eugene A. Bonte,
now an independent business consultant in the
Boston area, helped Bronstein develop a business
plan to test whether her idea of using chemiluminescence
to replace radioisotopes in biodiagnostic tools
would work. She named her new venture the Charles
Institute, "because I wrote the plan from
my husbands office in Cambridge, overlooking
the Charles River," she explains.
Financial support was probably
the greatest challenge. While most biotech start-ups
depend on established venture-capital firms for
funding, Bronstein decided not to go that route.
"We actually raised about a million dollars
from so-called "angel" investors
friends, family and individuals," she explains.
The seed capital was enough to rent a lab and
hire a synthetic chemist, a former colleague at
Polaroid, to synthesize the first set of reagents.
This was the birth of Tropix, founded in 1986.
The performance of the fledgling
companys first batch of reagents was better
than Bronstein anticipated, and they had many
different potential applications beyond clinical
diagnostics such as in medical and biological
research, pharmaceutical and agricultural products,
environmental testing and food and beverage analysis.
Bronstein recognized that Tropix needed additional
funding to take advantage of this initial success.
"I put up all the personal money I had saved,"
she says. "Our rent was guaranteed on my
credit cards, and it stayed that way for several
Bronstein also decided to
find a corporate partner to generate licensing
revenue to support Tropix. Through a consultant,
Tropix found a diagnostics company in Japan that
was planning a new product line. "I remember
our meeting very clearly," she says. "They
brought one of their most important kits, which
measured a specific thyroid hormone and required
a lot of sensitivity to detect it at low levels.
We used their kit and ran the test with our reagents.
The results were so outstanding that when we asked
our prospective partners where theyd like
to go to dinner, they were too excited to eat.
They wanted to know immediately how much money
we wanted!" The company eventually bought
a license to use Tropixs reagents in the
Far East, and also funded Tropix for more research
Over the next 10 years Tropix
grew to become a world leader in chemiluminescent
detection technologies for the life sciences,
with more than 2,500 customers. The company has
developed more than 150 new reagents and kits
used in the detection and analysis of biological
materials. Bronstein holds more than 100 patents
and has about 170 publications in scientific journals.
In 1996 Tropix was acquired
by what was then Perkin-Elmer Corp. and set up
as a wholly owned subsidiary of Applied Biosystems.
Today Applera Corp. is the holding company for
Applied Biosystems and Celera Genomics. Celera
is best known as the company that succeeded in
sequencing the human genome in 2000.
As vice president and general
manager of high-throughput screening applications
at Applied Biosystems, Bronstein says her career
has come full circle. "Chemiluminescence
is now a part of our core business that generates
very good revenues with high growth margins."
The high-throughput biological applications she
oversees essentially measure the effectiveness
of potential drugs in the quest for better medications.
Although she did enjoy working
in the small environment of her own company, theres
no denying that having access to a worldwide infrastructure
that a multinational corporation can bring "is
of great benefit," she offers. Applied Biosystems
gives her different types of business advantages
access to diverse R&D projects, market
support and distribution sites.
Bronstein hasnt been
in the lab for more than four years now. Shes
not sure whether she really misses it, probably
because her new challenges as a biotech executive
compensate for the excitement of scientific discovery.
Her job now is to oversee product development
and strategize the positioning of products in
It has been a gratifying and
at times bumpy journey, Bronstein acknowledges.
"You have to be prepared for almost anything,
but its satisfying when it works."
About the Author
Karen Young Kreeger is a science
journalist who writes on biomedical and womens
health topics, as well as careers in science.
Her most recent work has appeared in Bioscience,
Genome Technology, Muse and The